Social-Emotional Development and Intervention
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The research projects in our lab focus on the developmental processes and the causes and course of aggression in children and adolescents, with a particular emphasis on the role of emotions in stressful social contexts. We investigate the social-emotional processes and biomarkers associated with the development of aggressive behaviour using new methodological advances across different disciplines. The long-term scientific goal is to design, implement, and disseminate assessment tools and intervention practices that impede aggression and violence and promote prosocial orientations across development.
Our ongoing research projects are described below.
The emotions that children feel after treating others unfairly or harming them likely have important implications for the development of their aggressive behavior. For example, we have argued that feelings of guilt and sympathy steer children away from aggression across their lifetimes. However, we know relatively little about why and how some children, but not others, feel bad or sad after committing moral transgressions. Underlying physiological arousal (e.g., heart rate and skin conductance) and its management in contexts of moral transgression may explain why children feel more or less concern for others and engage in more or less aggressive acts. This longitudinal study will examine the unfolding of 4- and 8-year-olds’ physiological activity in hypothetical contexts of moral transgression and their aggressive behavior. We aim to understand how emotions, physiological activity, and changes in such activity across childhood and adolescence relate to the development of aggressive behavior. Ultimately, this research will inform the development of novel treatment strategies that target biomarkers and related emotional processes to reduce aggression across childhood and adolescence.
Why do some children feel guilty when transgressing norms, such as situations involving physical harm, while others do not show any remorse? Understanding how emotions in contexts of morality are formed is important because they have been found to be a strong predictor of socially acceptable behaviour. In addition, the absence of appropriate emotional responses to moral events has been shown to be associated with poor choices and negative outcomes for the individual and society. For example, individuals with low levels of guilt have been found to be more criminal, less productive, and more commonly suffer from pathologies.
In this project, we examine children’s attention to and processing of social conflict situations and how these influence their emotional responses to these situations. Using a sample of 4- to 12-year-olds, we study children’s eye movements to examine how the ways in which children process social conflict situations relates to their experiences of moral emotions. More specifically, we examine how their visual attention relates to their physiological, facial, and self-reported emotional responses. We hope to better understand how attention functions on a moment-to-moment basis to elicit moral emotions in children and adolescents. This project will contribute to knowledge of how cognitive and affective mechanisms underlie the emergence and development of emotional responses to morally salient situations.
Children’s everyday emotional experiences in contexts of peer victimization are likely to affect their behavioural functioning and psychological health. This project aims to examine: 1) the development of children’s emotions and physiological responses to peer exclusion, victimization, and prosocial encounters, and 2) when, how, and why these experiences relate to their actual aggression and prosocial behaviour. In laboratory and classroom settings, we employ a mixed-method, multi-informant approach to examine these questions. For example, we conduct interviews with children to understand how they feel in various social conflict situations, and how these experiences relate to teacher reports or peer perceptions of aggressive and prosocial behaviour. We also present children with interactive video vignettes in which they play various roles in excluding, harming, or supporting others and record their electrodermal and electrocardiographic activity while they report their feelings and thoughts. This line of research will enhance our understanding of how emotions such as sympathy, respect, and guilt shape children’s aggression and prosocial tendencies in peer relationships. It will also expand our knowledge of children’s emotional and physiological reactions to common experiences of exclusion, victimization, and prosociality with the goal of developing strategies to promote inclusive and prosocial orientations.
What makes children behave aggressively toward their peers? Alongside an understanding of fairness and not harming others, our research indicates that how children feel about societal norms and how they regulate emotions in social conflict situations play a significant role in their behaviour. While much research has been devoted to the role of anger and self-control in aggression, emotions such as schadenfreude have received less attention. Schadenfreude is a feeling of pleasure in the misfortune of another, and although it often stems from feelings of envy (i.e., we are more likely to feel happiness at another’s misfortunate if we envy them), it is fundamentally different because it is rooted in positive rather than negative feelings, and is tied to contexts of misfortune. In this project, we use an open-ended narrative approach to study how 12- and 15-year-olds experience schadenfreude. Based on this information, we will develop a measure for a larger study to investigate children’s and adolescents’ feelings of schadenfreude in multiple social contexts (e.g., school, competitive, and peer group contexts) and toward various targets (e.g., peers, siblings, authority figures), as well as how these feelings relate to their regulatory capacities and aggressive behaviours across development.
With many Syrian refugees arriving in Canada, it is important to understand how to best help these children and families successfully integrate and resettle into society. What are the Syrian refugee children’s and caregivers’ experiences surrounding support, prosociality, and challenging situations during their transition? What personal characteristics and interpersonal experiences make the transition easier for some than for others? How do these factors affect the children’s resilience and overall adjustment? SPRINT is a community-based project that addresses these questions. In this study, we examine Syrian refugee children’s development, family characteristics, and resilience. In a sample of Syrian newcomer children ages 5, 8, and 11, and their caregivers, we collect information on the children’s emotional and behavioural characteristics, social interactions, and psychological well-being using questionnaires. We also interview them about some of the challenges and positive experiences they have had (such as receiving support and helping others) during their transition. We aim to understand how refugee children and families deal with their transition to Canada and the factors that contribute to their resilience, helping them to adjust and thrive. This understanding is important because it can provide avenues for systems of support tailored to the needs of the children and families in a developmentally sensitive way. The findings from this project will inform the development and implementation of practices designed to help with the social adjustment and integration of Syrian refugee families in Canada.
Many children face social and emotional challenges that jeopardize their healthy development and behavioural functioning. The reliable assessment of children’s social-emotional functioning is critical to gauging their strengths and overcoming their challenges early to ensure positive long-term outcomes. Our lab is committed to the creation of new screening and assessment tools based in social-emotional developmental theory that measure different dimensions of social-emotional functioning in age-appropriate ways. We are currently developing assessment tools for the early years. The tools will provide school staff with a developmentally appropriate profile of the unique strengths and challenges of each child. Data can be reported at individual, classroom, school, and district levels. Ultimately, the information gathered by the tools will help teachers and practitioners employ developmentally tailored intervention strategies that address the social-emotional needs of each student.
Research indicates that 15 to 20 percent of children and youth have one or more mental, behavioural, or emotional problems, affecting learning, relationships, and well-being. While much progress in the implementation of services for youth has been made, what still needs to be developed are adaptive approaches and systems of supports to meet diverse developmental needs. This is important because adolescence is a sensitive developmental period characterized by rapid changes in neuronal, hormonal, social-emotional, and cognitive development. Our project explores how youth perceive their mental health, their mental health needs, and which developmental factors contribute to their mental health. In collaboration with Peel Children’s and Youth Initiative, we study 14- to 24-year-olds in the Peel region using both surveys and focus groups. Ultimately, this project will contribute to our understanding of youth’s own perceptions of their mental health and the developmental determinants of their mental health, which can help improve strategies and policies to enhance youth mental health and decrease mental health problems in a developmentally sensitive way.
The Lab for Social-Emotional Development and Intervention at the University of Toronto Mississauga is very grateful to the following councils and foundations for providing essential research funding: